Master of the House

There's a rumor going around that Jeff Groscost is brilliant.
Yes, that Jeff Groscost--Speaker of the House of Representatives, King of the Mouth Breathers. The guy who was once stripped of his leadership role because he couldn't be bothered to file his campaign-finance reports on time, the one who wanted to put a $500 bounty on the head of the endangered Mexican wolf.

For months now, I've been hearing the word--from lobbyists, legislative staff, members, former members, pundits. From Republicans and Democrats, from Groscost's best friends and worst enemies. The speaker, they say, is a master of the rules, a political strategist extraordinaire--he brokered electric deregulation, finessed Students First, passed reforms of the long-term health care system. They say he's the best vote-counter, the best arm-twister, the best manipulator of the process to walk the halls of the Arizona Legislature since Burton Barr.

And these superlatives aren't simply the gushings of brown-nosers sucking up to the guy in charge. You don't hear such accolades about Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza or Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Groscost's Senate counterpart, Brenda Burns. Only about Groscost.

But does the title of Consummate Deal Maker make one eligible for Mensa?
Phoenix Republican Representative Sue Gerard--the matriarch of the moderates, an unlikely Groscost ally but an ally nonetheless, a pro-choicer who teamed up with the pro-life speaker this week to pass an abortion-clinic regulation bill out of committee--sums it up best.

"All things are relative," she says with a harrumph.
In other words, consider Groscost in context with the current crop of IQ chart toppers in residence at the Capitol.

"You know," Gerard says, "it's like when people tell me how wonderful I am. I tell them I'm swimming in a very shallow pool."

Curious, I set out, looking for examples of Jeff Groscost's relative brilliance. In the end, I've found that, yeah, he's smart, but perhaps a more fitting title for the speaker is Mr. Smarty Pants.

Invariably, when you hear Groscost, a Republican, described as brilliant, it is closely followed by the term "bully." And although Jeff Groscost is certainly a grown-up--pushing 40, with a wife and four kids--he's consistently ascribed with little-boy tendencies.

"I've always described him as little Dennis the Menace," says Representative Kathi Foster, a Glendale Democrat. "You love him to death, but you want to put him in Time Out all the time. I think he's brilliant and I think he's the master of the game and, frankly, I think he would play the game until eternity and would never care if he finished."

And that from a woman Groscost has, by her own admission, reduced to tears, hives and vomiting, during last year's Students First school-finance battle.

So how does Mr. Smarty Pants do it? Groscost has hired savvy staffers, something his predecessor, Don Aldridge, didn't do. On their off time, with campaign funds, Groscost's staff maintains the speaker's own personal Web site--often a better place to catch up on legislative goings-on than the state-sponsored site. (Groscost posted committee assignments there before the state got them online.) He traversed the state last year, working to get Republicans elected to the House--and got his two-thirds majority of 40. Groscost is generous with the carrots; almost every returning GOP House member got a committee chairmanship, increasing the number of committees and giving Groscost more opportunity to kill bills by assigning them to four or five committees. It's difficult to shepherd a bill through two committees. Four? Five? Forget it.

Jeff Groscost is an odd hybrid, a conservative who readily admits he likes to make deals. Tenacious yet charming. Well-versed in the rules, but not afraid to break them when it suits his purposes. And above all, willing to bargain away whatever it takes to get his way.

"Our joke down here is Casino Jeff is always open, twenty-four, seven. Walk in. If you're willing to put your vote or your influence or whatever you've got on the table, you can play," says one longtime player. "Whadda you got? Whadda you got? Let's make a deal."

Kathi Foster learned that lesson firsthand during the drafting of Students First. When Groscost asked her what she wanted in exchange for her vote, she requested the chair of the Education Committee--unbelievable huevos, for a Democrat.

"He didn't even skip a beat. He went, 'Okay,'" Foster recalls. "And of course I'm thinking in the back of my mind, 'Yeah, and later on, when I'm chair of the Education Committee for 15 seconds, he'll say, "Well, I didn't say for how long."'"

Groscost didn't have to deliver at all. Foster voted for the original bill but refused to support it when it came back from the Senate with changes. No chairmanship, Groscost said as he stripped the bill of other perks Foster had won.  

But that wasn't the end of the Groscost-Foster alliance. "I can ask for anything and get it, right now," she says. Groscost handed Foster a plum assignment to a national education commission last year, and this year agreed to let her create a bipartisan women's caucus in the Arizona Legislature. Only for you, Foster says the speaker told her.

Art Hamilton, who left the Legislature last year after more than two decades, is quick to compliment Groscost--to a point. "He does have some streaks of absolute brilliance," says Hamilton. "He's a smart guy, and he certainly knows the process incredibly well. . . . I like Jeff Groscost. Let me tell you that I really do, in terms of his love of playing the process. But I really do believe in some cases it's a little boy run amok."

Hamilton should know. A master of process himself, Hamilton was Groscost's self-appointed baby sitter until he left the House. And now he's worried that no one is watching Mr. Smarty Pants.

"A guy who has as much power as the speaker's office allows him and a pretty good feel for the rules can be a pretty dangerous person if you don't have some people keeping an eye out for him."

Sue Gerard's shallow-pool theory and Mr. Smarty Pants were both on display recently on the House floor. A Democrat told me this story, trying to convince me that Groscost is a rube. But I wound up thinking the Democrats looked like the jerks--and Groscost looked pretty smart. Mean, but smart. Brilliant, perhaps. You decide:

One of Groscost's pet issues is a controversial one, the splitting off of eastern Maricopa County to create an East Valley county. Early in the session, he'd already watched two bills to do just that die. Desperate, he resorted to a watered-down proposal to create a study committee to examine the issue. This is a common way to get a crumb of the cake you want, then come back next year with a "mandate" from the study committee, which would likely be appointed by Groscost.

But even the study-committee bill was in trouble. Groscost didn't have the 31 votes he needed. So he lobbied, writing notes, having his minions chat up the naysayers. Meanwhile, on the House floor, Representative Debra Brimhall droned on about the bill. A group of Democrats who knew what Groscost was up to grew impatient. So they did what they often do. Eight of them "threw" their votes, moving the switches on their desks from "no" to "yes," to signal their change of heart. This is a common method of getting the opposition to shut up; members do that, then immediately change their votes back to "no" once the annoying member--in this case, Brimhall--sits down.

But not this time. Boom! Groscost had enough votes to ensure victory, so he ended discussion and called the vote in favor of his bill. Irate, the Dems stood up, demanding to change their votes.

Groscost refused. He came back the next day and apologized, but did not reverse the vote.

The Democrats were furious. "I would have requested that he step down as speaker," Art Hamilton tells me. "I think for the speaker of the House to knowingly refuse to let members change their votes when you clearly understand they wish to change them . . . is an abuse of power."

Of course, if the Dems hadn't been screwing around, the bill would now be dead.

Gerard says, "As far as I'm concerned, both groups were wrong. . . . [Groscost] was kind of bad about that, but he also taught them a lesson."

Hamilton concludes, "I just think he is a very bright guy who, if he has a fatal flaw, it is a judgment on his part that the end always justifies the means. And that's no matter how at times ugly or disrespectful of the rights of others those ends may be."

Jeff Groscost admits he didn't sleep well the night after he hoodwinked the Democrats. He says he prefers to rule by right, not might--although he does love to manipulate the rules.

"Jane Hull didn't get the term Iron Lady because she was a pushover in that chair," he observes.

More and more, Groscost's fans point to his powers of persuasion, more than those of parliamentary procedure, as evidence of his acumen. Any doubt I had as to his ability to forge compromise evaporated Monday as I watched him testify for his abortion-clinic regulation bill before Sue Gerard's Health Committee.

"It doesn't matter whether you're pro-life or pro-choice. . . . The Supreme Court has said it's legal to offer it," Groscost said of the procedure he's tried to limit for years.  

Groscost actually got the pro-life and pro-choice communities to work together and agree on legislation designed to prevent incidents like last year's fatal tragedy at the A-Z Women's Center. He hammered on details such as when an ultrasound would be required and what sort of signage is needed. Finally, Planned Parenthood officials caved and actually testified in favor of a bill that, in the words of another pro-choice advocate, "demonizes" abortion doctors by singling them out for regulation. State law does not require regulation of any other medical clinics.

"Medically, it's not a bad bill. Politically, it sucks," says Arizona Right to Choose lobbyist Bruce Miller, who spoke against House Bill 2706.

Amazingly, after the hearing--in which the bill passed, with the Republicans voting "aye," three Democrats voting "present," and one member absent--Planned Parenthood of Central Arizona CEO Bryan Howard enthused about the dialogue his group had had with the speaker.

It makes me wonder what Groscost promised Planned Parenthood in exchange for its support. In any case, his performance was, in a word, brilliant.

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or at her online address:

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